Le hug: it’s just not very French Kerry learns on Paris trip

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry touched down in France on Friday, pledging “to share a big hug with Paris”

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When top U.S. diplomat John Kerry rushed towards the French president, arms open, to warmly embrace him on Friday, what followed was a cringeworthy culture clash that has befuddled many a visitor to France.

The French are just not that into hugging.

Kerry had given fair warning to his French counterparts that some American-style affection was on the cards.

“My visit to France is basically to share a big hug for Paris and express the affection of the American people for France and for our friends there who have been through a terrible time,” he said on the eve of his trip.

The phrase alone sparked confusion in the media who struggled to pin down a translation for the word hug.

There is “calin”, which is more akin to a cuddle and unlikely to be shared between anyone except lovers or parents and their children. Other words or phrases are typically more romantic-sounding.

Most eventually settled on the cooler sounding “accolade”.

But for the leader of a country where “la bise” or cheek-kissing is the standard greeting between strangers, friends and colleagues, it was never going to be easy.


The towering John Kerry was meters from Hollande, striding fast, when he first opened his arms.

In turn, the French leader stretched out his, clasping Kerry’s hands. Kerry pulled him into a brief hug to his right, at which time Hollande appeared to go back in for “la bise”.

Kerry caught up, accepted the kiss on his right cheek, before they clasped hands again, awkwardly placing their arms around each other as they walked side by side up the stairs into the Elysee Palace.

Half-hug, half-bise, it was a moving clash of cultures.

Greetings in France can stump even the most seasoned traveler, even a French-speaking Francophile like Kerry, whose mother was born in France. Many a reserved tourist has been taken aback by having a stranger’s lips planted on their cheek.

Tourism blogs abound with advice.

How many kisses should you give? It can vary from two in Paris to three in the south and in some places, four is not unheard-of. Should your lips touch the cheek, or graze the air, should there be a kissy sound?

Never mind the complex politics over who initiates the bise, and the seemingly never-ending greetings when arriving or leaving a party or function.

The blog “Oui in France” by an American living in the west of the country, outlines the pitfalls in an article called “Don’t ever hug a French person”.

“Upon arriving in France, I learned really quickly that you don’t hug to say hi. Not even family members,” wrote the author Diane.

“How’d I learn? When I jovially put my arms around my French father-in-law who proceeded to just stand there like an animal playing dead.”

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